NewMusicMondays – 14 September 2020

New Zealand-based The Beths follow in the strong power pop tradition blazed by Scotland’s Camera Obscura, Canada’s Alvvays and Australia’s Allo Darlin’ – bittersweet relationship observations shared in common, yet with a somewhat harder edge than all three. Even so, they (also) have melodic hooks galore, sharply yet painlessly so pointed as to be capable of being swallowed hook line and sinker, and brave octave leaps in the vocal line. Their second album, Jump Rope Gazers, was released in July but written last year and finished earlier in 2020 with the global march of Covid-19 already underway. It’s hard, nevertheless, not to see it as something of a metaphor for our times: on the standout track, ‘Dying to Believe,’ Elizabeth Stokes sings ‘I’m dying to believe/That you won’t be the death of me;’

while the title track, written as the band toured extensively away from home, envisages two people apart but still connected on the end here of a skipping rope but which stands as a metaphor for anything which links people and keeps them together – a phone line, a laptop-based camera link, good old fashioned mail. The whole album speaks of distanced relationships but of the ability of people to reconnect and to maintain whatever it is that holds them together no matter the time spent apart.

The Beths’ Bandcamp is well worth checking out; and note that their first album – the wonderful Future Me Hates Me – is available for pre-order again on another differently-coloured vinyl; this time on neon yellow splatter expected to ship at the back end of this month.

Second up this week is Khruangbin’s ‘Pelota’, off their new album Mordechai, released in June. Khruangbin have been around for a while – Mordecai is their third album – but despite raising quite an industry buzz over the last five years, their soundscapes have passed mostly rather over my head up to now. ‘Pelota’, coming over the airwaves on Iggy Pop’s show on 6Music last Friday, immediately strikes an evocative, haunting, late night guitar line straight from the heyday of Senegalese maestros Orchestre Baobab, before Laura Lee’s Spanish vocal and a Latin-oriented percussion take on the theme. There is a clever and rather liberating video, too:

Again, you can pick up more of Khruangbin’s work via their Bandcamp.

Orchestre Baobab, by the way, are shortly to release Specialists in All Styles, their 2002 re-unification album featuring also Youssou N’Dour and Ibrahim Ferrer, for the first time on vinyl, coming at the back end of next week. Sadly, Balla Sidibe, Baobab’s founding and sustaining light, died suddenly at the end of July.

Held also in memoriam this week is Pete King, doyen of the British alto sax scene, who died on 23 August. You can explore his legend on plenty of YouTube videos but the one I come back to is his uplifting role on Everything But the Girl’s ‘Each and Every One’, which came out as the British jazz scene was starting to take shape in the mid-1980s and which song and album (Eden) was also my own founding introduction to feminism. Tracey Thorn might have intended this as a response to the Marine Girls’ music critics, but not least in an album context, its wider resonances are also clear:

‘Each and Every One’ might be best-known otherwise for its Latin groove, but it’s Pete King’s sax which gives it its joy. King appeared on all of EBTG’s first four albums, by the way, as well as on Amplified Heart. RIP to Balla, Pete and Toots Hibbert, who died at the weekend while awaiting the results of a Covid-19 test.

NewMusicMondays – 7 September 2020

Lockdown has been a challenging time for all of us including those furloughed and facing highly uncertain futures in workplaces that, where they are safe, will look very different to before; those freelancers in the entertainment industry left out of the scheme where my old union, Prospect, has been very active; and, most recently, the belittling of the contribution made by people working from home.

Music and has suffered more than most and while BBC 6Music – which I listen to frequently – is back to its normal schedule today, some of its DJs in the evenings are still likely to be recording their programmes from home (not at all phoning it in) for some time to come. Artists have suffered immensely from the loss of live music – music is meant to be played, not just listened to – and DJs for whom gig-going is a vital part of their own music appreciation have no idea what works well live. Indoor live music has returned, at least in some way, but it will not result in musicians being able to return to their living – with the model in the downloads era being based on touring and merchandise rather than sales of actual music – while the Musicians Union comments that the Cultural Recovery Fund, as with entertainment freelancers, is unlikely to reach the majority of musicians.

One of the DJs still recording from home, and whose programmes I pick up at least bits of most nights, is Gideon Coe, whose programme last Monday was a lockdown special featuring only music recorded by artists at home. This has been a real phenomenon with music recorded even on smartphones, while musicians zoomed their collaborations, and then despatched over the wires for mixing elsewhere. Thank goodness for fibre broadband: it does save a round trip between New York and London these days. Quite a bit of the programme was, quite frankly, a bit too trippy for me – but it did feature two Kathryn Williams versions of Bob Dylan songs – ‘Don’t Think Twice’ and ‘Not Dark Yet’ – recorded actually for an earlier special celebrating the release of Dylan’s new album.

I can’t link to the tracks directly – they were specially recorded for the Beeb and they’re not otherwise released. Neither does Kathryn seem to have recorded them previously, despite the prolific nature of her output, although I don’t know whether they have formed any part of her live sets. But you can pick up Gid’s programme at the website (for the next 23 days only) – these particular tracks are just a few seconds after the 2-hour mark. And if you enjoy them, Kathryn Williams’s Bandcamp is right here.

Now, I’m not especially a Dylan fan, and I’ve not heard either one before. But these strike me as being beautiful (and beautifully arranged) songs, the first apparently jaunty, the second dark and brooding, infused here with Williams’s own trademark soul-searching honesty and vulnerability, and taking Dylan back to his folky roots. Sometimes these recordings (or, at least, versions of them) do see the light of day in the end – and I hope something is being worked on for that because they deserve a wide audience.

Secondly, if you ever thought that The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’ owed a bit of a debt to Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’, firstly you’re not alone; and secondly, musician Laurence Mason is here to help by bringing such a thing brilliantly to life. Mason’s rhythm section essentially plays ‘Take 5’ while the pianist (who may nor may not also be Mason) plays the distinctive harpischord riff from ‘Golden Brown’ and Mason himself contributes a lovely piece of alto work taking on the vocal line. The video is Brubeck and band themselves in action cut not faultlessly – it could hardly be – but well enough.

Recorded as a tribute to Dave Greenfield, who died earlier this year, this is one of those youtube phenomena – over one million hits for something recorded originally as a demo without an expectation of much in the way of feedback [EDIT 16/9/20 and now over 2.3m for the original video]. A release date was planned, and now brought forward – formally now for this coming Friday – and you can get it via Bandcamp right here.

Really must fetch down my own alto again from its temporary home on top of the bookcase right behind me…

NewMusicMondays – 31 August 2020

Two more tracks for you this week – though the second choice is not exactly ‘new’ – it’s a bit of a Bank Holiday (if you’re in England and Wales) treat… Read on!

First up is Kronos Quartet (and friends), whose Long Time Passing pays tribute to the music, political philosophy and social impact of Pete Seeger, who would have been 100 in 2019. The Quartet’s typical line-up, with two violins, viola and cello, is supplemented here with a range of other vocalists. The album, due out in October, features 13 songs written or popularised by Seeger, either independently or as part of The Weavers, and includes ‘If I Had A Hammer’, a riotous performance of which I have somewhere on an old cassette tape when Seeger, otherwise shut down by Senator McCarthy’s ‘Unamerican Activities’ Committee, was taking the message around university campuses (to no little acclaim).

Here, however, is ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’, Seeger’s lament of the cycles of violence and brought brilliantly to life by having a different vocalist for each verse. This was the first single off the album, although released just last Thursday was the union battle anthem ‘Which Side Are You On?’ turned here into a jig with the aid of Seeger-style banjos.

 

The second track up, and courtesy of information from Marc Riley’s 6Music programme on Wednesday last week, is T. Rex’s ’20th Century Boy’, famous for Mickey Finn’s handclaps, a misheard lyric and a top-of-the-class straight A guitar riff which somewhat blinds us to the fact that it’s nearly fifty years old.

But also – catch the ‘backing’ vocalists stridently pile-driving the tune on over the top of Marc’s own lusty vocal line. Gloria Jones, perhaps, Marc’s girlfriend at the time, and a noted Northern Soul singer (‘Tainted Love’) and producer? Nah – no less than Sue and Sunny. Who you might ask? Well, backing vocalists with a quite astonishing list of hits and acts in their credits, but also for three years members of Brotherhood of Man. (No, not quite this one, though; the earlier incarnation up to 1971 and whose big hit was ‘United We Stand’ – once again driven along by the powerful vocals of Sue and Sunny).

Little known fact about me: I once won a Brotherhood of Man LP in a local radio comp.

Dance floor fillers

6Music put out one of its regular tweets this week looking for listeners to supply their top tracks for doing x, y or z thing: this time looking for tracks to fill a dance floor – six of them, of course (they’re nothing if not clever, 6Music’s social media team).

Usually, I resist this sort of thing on the grounds that these things change from day to day anyway, depending on the mood – but supplying half an hour of half a dozen absolute dance floor bangers turned out to be, a day or so later, to be irresistible. So, here’s my choices – at least, as of yesterday evening after a few glasses of something cold:

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

And, having got them there, I’d keep this particular crowd there with Sister Sledge, Stacy Lattisaw, the Pointer Sisters, Brothers Johnson, McFadden & Whitehead, Gary Byrd….

NewMusicMondays – 24 August 2020

A friend said to me yesterday that there really isn’t enough music on this blog. Checking back my posts, the last music related item was a book review back in May; and, before that, a gig review last September.

So, in the attempt to remedy this clearly appalling state of affairs, and to help soundtrack your week, I’m going (unless otherwise derailed) to add a series of posts over at least the next couple of weeks linking to different pieces of music which are currently hitting the spot from artists that I don’t otherwise know a lot about.

First up this week, we have Bai Kamara, a guitarist who grew up in the UK and currently based in Belgium, where he’s lived for the last 25 years. This track has a strong Chicago blues vibe while the style recalls John Lee Hooker’s scene in The Blues Brothers (as ‘Street Slim’, apparently); but this was shot in Freetown, Sierra Leone and the ‘blues’ of the lyrics is entirely contemporary. Features plenty of distortion, too, for those who like that sort of thing. This is off Bai’s album Salone, released back in January.

I heard this on DJ Ritu‘s ‘A World in London’ show to which I’ve been a regular listener over the last ten years. In these times, Ritu is sill managing to put the show out on Mixcloud and, with a slight twist, features a few oldies alongside plenty of new stuff to compensate for the lack of live guests. And welcome to the long-awaited new website, Ritu!

The second track this week is by the retooled Nick Pride & The Pimptones and is an out-and-out Northern Soul stomper with a fresh pop soul sensibility. It’s got crashing drive, horns and a shimmering vocal line with cutely observed lyrics of love and (potential) loss. The band are straight out of Newcastle, soul music centre of the UK, and I heard this of course on Craig Charles’s 6Music show on Saturday (at about 1:34:45, just after Etta James and just before Craig’s ‘Talcum Time’, if you want to catch it in context). It’s off the forthcoming album Ideology.

Enjoy!

Book Review: Greetings from Bury Park

Rather shamefully, for a Twitter user whose handle is ‘PlayedOutScenes’* and, somewhat less consciously, whose blog has the title this one does,** I missed out on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir first time round when it was published in 2007. Recently re-packaged and with a new Afterword to tie in with Gurinder Chadha’s 2019 film (which I’ve also yet to see; the wonderful, but currently suspended, Screen Machine – which, in normal times, brings us our cinema – and which did show it was sadly on the mainland when it was current), I finally managed to pick up a copy around the same time as I did one of the film’s soundtrack (on white vinyl, of course). Yes, iTunes: here is indeed another copy of ‘Thunder Road’.

You don’t have to be a Springsteen fan to read it – though it does help to be able to make some important connections: each chapter is the title of a Springsteen song and is headed with a quote from (usually) a different song; while other lyrics and references creep, no doubt consciously, into the text including, on one occasion, one from how Springsteen introduced a particular song on stage at a particular point in his career (and, indeed, at the point when Sarfraz became a fan). No doubt about it, Sarfraz is hardcore, having toured to see Springsteen in many different countries, but the book is not about Springsteen; our hero is, rather, a hook on which to hang a memoir that Sarfraz wrote after his father’s early death as a way of trying to understand who he was and as a way of seeking answers to the questions that he could no longer put to him. Springsteen is a guide uniquely well-equipped to supply the key to the secrets of how to walk like a man.

Each chapter focuses on a particular theme. His father’s early life in this country and before he brought his wife and children over to join him, and then family life with particular regard to his older brother and sister, cover nearly one-third of the book. These set the scene for Sarfraz’s discovery of Springsteen (via a Sikh lad who thereby changed his life and became his blood brother) and his own growing up, including a memorable summer in the US; employment; dating and his mother’s attempts to marry him off in his twenties and thirties; his faith; and, finally, issues of identity, including about being Muslim in a post-9/11 world which sees Muslims as terrorists. The identity issues around being Asian and a Springsteen fan feature throughout (and clearly dominate the publicity for the film).

Giving each chapter a theme means that the narrative features events from Sarfraz’s life as a boy directly alongside those of him as an adult (a redundancy gave him the time to produce, and then pitch, the screenplay on which Gurinder Chadha based her film of something that, in its raw form, would otherwise be unfilmable). Taking such a non-linear, and more compartmentalised, approach is not the only way to tell a biography but, given Sarfraz’s aims, it is particularly appropriate since it lends him the opportunity to collect his thoughts on his father’s motives and actions not only in a retrospective fashion, echoed by his fandom, but also in a way that might have found sympathy with his father. The (slight) downside is that the narrative’s emotional peak – his father’s death – occurs in the first chapter; the Springsteen-related highlight – meeting him at some length while covering a legal case (a precedent-setting one, too) as a reporter but, more so, suggesting to him a particular song and arrangement after queuing for photographs before a gig in Sheffield, and then hearing it done at that gig with a dedication – occur within a few pages of each other before the book is half-way through. The book doesn’t sag thereafter, because Sarfraz has been careful to explain his purpose, but it probably helps to appreciate at the outset that this personal ribbon of highway is a non-linear one.

The immediate attraction of Springsteen’s lyrics to Sarfraz is immense and made clear right at the outset – Springsteen, famously, also had a father who was hard to reach and to whom he could not relate, at least not while growing up in the same house. Many of the single releases apart – which were, frequently and immensely frustratingly, clearly atypical examples of the depth of his writing – Springsteen is a lyricist of phenomenal and consistent power, over some fifty years of creativity, and I felt that same draw when listening to his songs for the first time. Forty years on, and hundreds of plays later, ‘The River’ still has the power to move this listener to tears at the protagonist’s agonised despair at the death of his romantic dreams. That a perfect three-minute record could both be a call to love and to action and, at the same time, convey a depth of meaning was not exactly new to this fifteen-year old in 1978 listening to ‘Darkness’ in the immediate aftermath of punk. However, with growing discovery of the possibilities of textual analysis, Springsteen’s lyrics – the songs being frequently novellas, hinting as much as they revealed while capturing breathtaking moments of candour or insight – represented true literature as significant as anything written by the giants of classical or contemporary literature. It’s a genuine thrill, from one cautious man of the road to another, to read that same discovery from the perspective of another fan.

Only Sarfraz knows whether he succeeded in his mission. I suspect that he did, at least to some degree. Regardless, the stand-out feature of his memoir is its heartfelt call for a greater understanding of the bravery and the sacrifices of the pioneer generation in any circumstance – and I, too, am descended from relatively recent generations of migrants – in leaving behind their families and all that they knew to strive for the means for a better life amidst discrimination, suspicion and racism; and amidst constant calls on their time and their resources, yet freely to give of both.

At the same time, it’s unbearably sad that such sacrifices are worth little without recognising that setting people of the next generation free to exercise freedom of choice about how they live their own lives is not a rejection of those sacrifices but the embodiment of what they themselves had striven for. Domestic authoritarianism is never the answer and that’s a universal truth to families in Karachi, Pakistan just the same as in Freehold, New Jersey: the fear that ‘There’s just different people coming down now/And they see things in different ways’ – crucially acknowledged by the son character in ‘Independence Day’ – would have been something equally recognisable to Douglas Springsteen as to Mohammed Manzoor. And, I suspect, to their fathers, too. In the meantime, ensuring that our best steps are not stolen from us is a job for us all, sons and fathers alike, and at the collective, societal level as well as at the individual one.

And, if Sarfraz’s memoir helps in overcoming the need for us to learn those same lessons at least every other generation, it will have done terrific service.

 

Footnote: A philosophy from Badlands / ** An excerpt from Rosalita. There is, of course, a Springsteen lyric for every occasion – I even found my own name in a Springsteen lyric once and, coincidentally, one from around the time Greetings from Asbury Park came out. I’m not sure whether I’m sadder that this particular song never made it out of the studio (it wasn’t one of those the subject of that court case); or that, despite the mesmerising lyrical scope hinted at by its title, it was a song for which Springsteen never got round to writing any words.

Gig review: Aly and Phil in our village

It must be a bit odd for musicians to come to a gig and find the dressing room/green room absolutely front of house and on open display as the punters arrive to take their seats. Nevertheless, this was no ordinary gig as Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, legends on the international traditional music scene for generations and with musical palmares the length of not just one arm but both outstretched, and uncrooked as a musician’s would usually be, arrive in Iochdar village hall, down at the end of my road, to play my birthday gig as part of their 2019 Scottish tour.*

They were here last year, too, although for one reason or another I missed it then (I do have a regular complaint that events on these islands tend not to be advertised well here unless you’re on that bookface thing). I had wondered why such stars – musical heroes of mine since the traditional scene exploded into my musical education in the 1980s – would play precisely here, and not least (still) without a new record to promote: partly for the reasons of time and effort involved in getting here and in making it pay (I guess it doesn’t – but that’s probably beside the point), but more importantly because we don’t have a strong fiddle tradition on the islands (though we do of course have a box one). (Today, down in Am Politician on Eirisgeidh for a birthday dinner, it appeared from talking to the publican that Phil had turned up last year, box in hand, for an inpromptu evening session: learning new tunes is, naturally, the lifeblood of any new musician.) There is, however, a sort of family connection with Uist and Benbecula for Phil, and both people who had maintained the connection were of course in the audience and got a shout out as well as a dedication from the stage. It was indeed that sort of gig.

Aly and Phil have been playing together for 33 years and with a background in music stretching back for fifteen years before that: Aly in Boys of the Lough and Phil in Silly Wizard. Both have the sort of status that entails writing tunes for commissions, both for paid jobs in TV productions and for other famous musicians, and having tunes written for them, but they still both enjoy each other’s company as well as have a key role in providing the active emotional support for each other that we all need.

With a musical heritage this long, picking a list of the sets of tunes you want to play is both tough and easy – tough because selecting any one track leaves a load of other similar-sounding combinations behind; easy because, with an appreciative not to say reverential crowd, you know that any selection you can make will go down well. So, the tunes have to fit and to deliver coherent sets which does the job of a tune-playing band but, not least, to the satisfaction of the musos themselves: stirring people in some way, playing on their heartstrings and chiming with their emotions. Here, we had the hits – Fairy Dance to close (from which the picture below is taken © Ella Wronecka – thank you!), with Hangman’s Reel (the theme tune from the BBC’s ‘Down Home‘ series, which properly introduced me to Aly Bain) and Jean’s Reel (likewise for Phil Cunningham, and fondly remembered by Andy Kershaw as the track he’d seen Cunningham absolutely shred after sinking about six pints; and the tune he’s apparently played at every one of his gigs ever).

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With Aly seriously ill in hospital earlier this year ahead of a triple heart bypass, and with a consequent warm-hearted expression of appreciation for our NHS, the first half – while mixed in with faster-paced sets – took on an elegiac tone, with ‘So Long, Liam’ an absolute stand-out. Other airs were similarly beautifully and breath-takingly sustained, drawing out the audience’s emotion right to the length of the bow, and for a brief second beyond. The second set, with the feature songs mentioned above, tended to be faster but still interleaved the more complex rhythms of the boys’ connection with Swedish musicians with airs and waltzes and, in some sets, bravely transitioning from waltzes to reels within the same set. Just the two of them on the stage but, with a bit of skullduggery, and no little skill, this was a whole band of fired-up musicians up there. All interspersed with lengthy introductions to the tunes which served to get the breath back, led largely by Phil, featuring humour (including a wonderful tale about playing for the Queen at Balmoral (here, for a wee flavour) which might well explain why the honours are still lost in the post, boys), shaggy dog stories, a fair amount of sly self-references, technical notes about the music and rhythms, and anecdotes drawn from their astonishing yet very human musical trajectories and careers, this was a right proper ceilidh.

Which brings me to the one slightly downwards note: the gig was wonderfully organised by Mary and the Ceòlas team, with the aid of the Talla an Iochdar committee volunteers, but it was disappointing to see the hall laid out for a fully sit-down gig. Now, traditional music isn’t only for the old’uns and it was great to see some junior enthusiasts too, and people who are, well, (still) older than me were the core of the audience so we need some chairs. But this music is made for dancing and some audience participation via a bit of an opportunity to get up offa that thing and show a few moves might well have improved the night even more by dint of giving a bit more feedback to the musicians. Foot-tapping and sincere, warm and grateful applause gets you so far but nothing tugs a musician’s sensibility more, or drives them further and faster, than people moving and grooving to the music they’re creating right there, right then.

There’s still some gigs left on the Scottish tour before it winds up in a homecoming gig at the Queen’s Hall in Scotland’s other (east coast) capital at the end of the month so, if they’re coming anywhere near you, go and see them. Not only have they absolutely still got it but they’ll send you out into the night aglow and warmed and inspired in the way that only traditional music, connecting souls and spirits and different understandings to the universal themes that bind us all, can properly do.

*  Might not have been strictly true.

Runrig: A Sasannach* appreciation

I missed out on Runrig in my earlier days, so they have indeed been something of a foreign territory. Coming first to national prominence in the late 70s, but on radio shows and TV that, living in England, I wouldn’t have seen, I was certainly aware of them from 1987, with the release of The Cutter and The Clan, their breakthrough, fifth, LP. By then, though, the only guitars I really wanted to hear were African, and specifically Congolese (out of Paris), while I really wanted to hear west African koras and, as for accordions – well, they were fine as long as they were in the vallenato style or otherwise played by Flaco Jimenez; and, if Andy Kershaw or, to a lesser extent, John Peel never played it, I never heard it. And I certainly missed their, surely unlikely, appearance in the 1990s on Top of the Pops, singing An Ubhal As Airde, their rather lovely song in memory of Calum and Rory’s father, and introduced by a young woman presenter who’d clearly been taken lessons from one of the band on how to say Gàidhlig properly (and very nearly making it, too).

What I didn’t do was make the connections between traditional music from elsewhere and that coming from ‘home’: the one should have led me back to the other.

So, for ages just about the only Runrig song I actually knew was An Toll Dubh, and that on a compilation CD which had been lent to me (thanks JB!). And, even then, I wasn’t quite sure how much was Runrig and how much was Paul Mounsey (the producer/re-arranger). Until this summer, that is, when my regular stint volunteering up at the museum in North Uist brought me into regular contact since, in advance of The Last Dance, and given that the museum holds the Runrig archive, part of the display was a Gold Disc (for Searchlight) and a series of well-chosen TV and other video clips from throughout the band’s history (including the aforementioned TOTP appearance) showing on a continual loop. Slowly, gently over the weeks, the songs got into my head, so I went out and bought 50 Great Songs, a 3-CD compilation (two in English and one in Gàidhlig) as well as a DVD. The CDs feature a number of studio and live recordings, mostly from the Bruce Guthro era, plus unusually, but typically generously, an allocation of space to a handful of other musicians singing Runrig songs (and including the stand-out track in this collection). One of these is Dick Gaughan, last heard by me in a session for Kershaw singing – among others – Amandla! a ahout-out for Umkhonto we Sizwe in the last days of apartheid which continues to be both chilling and inspiring.

You don’t have to live on Uist to appreciate Runrig’s worth: apart from elsewhere on these islands, and on the mainland, the band is also highly successful in Germany and in Scandinavia and, famously but tragically, in North America, too. But it does help, I think – and I don’t mean the obvious appeal of references to the Uists and in lyrics such as that in The Message:

Gonna take the last flight home to Balivanich/In the month of June/Go racing up the South Ford…’

[in a car, obviously: no-one goes racing up South Ford on a bike].

What Runrig does very well is to capture the spirit of Uist in a way that not only pulls on the heartstrings of emigrés but also pays tribute to the courage of those who took the decision to stay – the product of a lack of opportunity in some cases, sure, but in many others one of a conscious desire to build on traditions, to pay tribute to the efforts of those who went before and to sustain communities – choices which, once made, frequently carry a heavy toll on those who make them. Runrig does this both in the lyrics (although the lyrics tend more towards moments in and out of consciousness, lines of inspired poetry, and emotional references and pulls, in songs that may not necessarily otherwise tell a linear story) but perhaps more particularly, as I’ve hinted already, in the music – but, in truth, the magic lies in the combination of both. Other than in echoing the luadh (waulking), as famously in An Toll Dubh but also in other songs in the collection, the melody lines are strong and with solid hooks, and the band well know the little tricks of making keyboards and guitars sound like falling rain, bass lines that pulse like gusts of mighty gales, rolling drums that echo the pounding ocean, and the whole coming together in a sound that forms a subliminal, aural recognition of the wild-at-heart soundscape underneath the big, wide-open skies of the Uists.

Of course, the short answer is that, wherever they’re actually from, like all live bands who’ve spent a lifetime gigging and spending a life on the road, the secret to Runrig is that the band are really good at giving a live audience what they want: passion, intensity, rousing choruses and the chance to jump up and down a bit. In that, they’re not so different to any other band, including that E Street one (with which there are some melodic similarities here): it’s all rock’n’roll, whether its inspiration is rooted in Celtic mysticism, American blues and gospel or British beat.

For an introduction into the sound of Runrig (at least, in its post-1997 second coming), this isn’t a bad place to start. That and Flowers of the West, which tells the story behind some of the songs and including some marvellous anecdotes and tall stories, including one of the TOTP appearances and a certain Diana Ross (sadly out of print, it seems, but perhaps available at a library, or indeed museum, near you).

That stand-out song? The version of Chi Mi ‘n Geamhradh (deliberately loose translation: Winter is Coming) by Catherine-Ann McPhee, a woman from Barra now living in Canada (a path familiar to many emigrés from the Western Isles) – and a reversal of the one undertaken by Guthro. Accompanied by the clarsach, and then by the violin, this is a vocal of extraordinary, spine-tingling power – confident, assertive and self-determining – set in the most lovely of arrangements. It is a thing of rare and lovely beauty: do check it out.

* Check the earlier discussion here.

The Free Church roots of American gospel

‘Never read the comments’ is long-standing advice for people on the net (aside of this very blog, of course, where there is a very interesting discussion going on right now about Celtic linguistic references to ‘the English’). But, sometimes it does pay off – and one of the recent obituaries to the sadly-departed Aretha Franklin in The Guardian provides one such example where one fairly prolific commentator on the site – a ‘Mrs. Vanderbilt’ – argued in the comments that:

‘Franklin was the supreme representative of a tradition that brought together European (Scottish) call and response church worship with African tribal chant. As such, she was the legitimate voice of a United States that was founded on both of those diverse cultures.’

Well, that was news to this reader, for whom Aretha’s voice and stance represented probably the apotheosis of the spine-chilling call both to the church as well as to civil and women’s rights. Challenged to come up with some evidence for this, ‘Mrs. Vanderbilt’ produced two sources: a YouTube video introduced by Phil Cunningham, the well-known accordeon player, and Calum Martin (who also features in this slightly longer, separate video); and a piece in The Independent which identified that there is academic support for such a view from one Professor Ruff, a musician and professor at Yale University. Given the history also of the involvement in the slave trade of representatives of the Scottish wealth and land-owning classes, which is well documented and which also features in Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, for example, there may well be substantive merit in what Ruff says. We should ignore the more hyperbolic and less well-researched aspects of his reported comments, while observing the notion that maverick academics are not an entirely unknown quantity. I’m not at all well placed to comment on aspects of the black experience, and I can only imagine the reaction among the black community to the view that gospel singing stems, in part, from the singing and oral traditions of a section of their oppressors. (Interestingly, The Independent piece has no comments.) However, the video is well worth a look for those who haven’t yet come across the tradition of Gàidhlig psalm singing: it’s both emotional and quite beautiful; and also contributes to an understanding of some of the traditions of some contemporary singers and musicians from the Western Isles.

There are some clear similarities in the styles, at least at the superficial level, but I’m not sure that I’m particularly convinced that there is that much in the way of actual influence from one to the other. Clearly, even traditions which do share some commonalities in their roots are likely to diverge over the centuries and over the thousands of miles which separate modern day experiences from the ones which came to form them. With this in mind, we should perhaps not be troubled too much by the gap created by the incongruity between a white (and apparently largely older male) congregation, sitting down and singing from hymn books, and a black, mixed and substantially much more mobile and youthful one.

There is, however, at least one aspect of commonality which is worth considering. We know that working class highland communities have suffered much as a result of the Clearances (and then the potato famines) with large, but unknown numbers probably counting in the several tens of thousands of able-bodied men and women evicted from the Highlands, their homes and belongings burned in an act of ‘wreckless terrorism’, and forced into exile in Canada, in the Carolinas of the US and in Australia, with devastating impacts on those cleared as well as on the old and the very young who were left behind to fend for themselves. I should be clear that I’m not equating the destinies of those subject to the Clearances with those sold (also from substantially agrarian societies, by the way) into the slave trade, the conditions of the migration and the method of transportation being cruel, inhuman and deathly on the one hand but brutal, dehumanising and murderous on the other. Nevertheless, the pain and suffering caused by rupture, both on those forced to leave and also on those left behind, is perhaps one thing which might well be held in common between Free Chuch congregations and those of the US gospel south and which might well contribute some of any similiarities between the styles of singing.

Peter Alan Ross, in his beautiful elegy on the occasion of Runrig’s Last Dance, a band for whose songwriters, coming as they do from North Uist, Gàidhlig psalm singing was also a part of their traditions and upbringing, notes that Bruce Guthro, when he joined the band, was a Novia Scotian. His approach to singing reflected the themes of emigration and loss about which the MacDonalds were writing and that his joining the band, at least to some degree, represented a taking back of one of our own. If there are similarities between gospel traditions and the approach of Gàidhlig psalm singers, it must surely be in the pain and sorrow of communities ruptured by external forces and from economic systems that saw people either as a source of profit or otherwise as a barrier to it.

Books-to-read shelf

Looking just about as packed as it ever has (am a pretty slow reader and don’t tend to read more than one book at once), although it’s pleasingly representative of the stuff I usually read. Readers’ recommendations as to what I should pick off the shelf next are welcome!

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Actually, at least one of these is well underway – I’m halfway through Ted Gioia’s ‘The History of Jazz‘ (2nd Ed), which was my bedside read of choice while in Perth, which accounts for why progress on this has been slower than usual. Selling the flat means that it has now managed to find its way here to the islands, and I have recently picked it up again. I’ve reached the part immediately after the rise of bop to replace big band swing, with the new modern jazz movement at the start of the 1950s looking to build on bop while building something new coincidental with the resource-instituted break-up of the big bands.

As I found before, this is a remarkably easy book to put down and pick up again, with just a casual reminder of the prevailing subject matter. Each chapter takes a look at a particular movement within jazz, looking successively at the key bands, line-ups and essential listening by each (the Third Edition should definitely include some CDs…). It’s exhaustively researched and includes plenty of colour but the writing is balanced and not judgmental in spite the strong association between jazz and substance abuse and, despite being an enthusiast, Gioia’s metre is never off-putting to the casual reader.

What continues to strike me is that, in the UK, we’re just celebrating 40 years of punk – well, 1976 was the real 40th anniversary, but this year saw the release of ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’, the hook on which Marc Riley and Rob Hughes have built their hugely entertaining A to Z of Punk series, now available as a podcast. Casting back 40 years from punk and the biggest draw in popular music in 1936/37 was Benny Goodman. I’ll not hear a word against Benny Goodman – anyone building a career in popular music based on playing the clarinet and who wears glasses is alright with me, for one thing; and, for another, his band was racially integrated in an era marked by segregation: his quartet featured Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton alongside Goodman and Krupa; and his big band featured many charts, and most of the popular ones, arranged by Fletcher Henderson. Benny Goodman was not playing music for middle class cardigan wearers in their 50s; at the height of his fame, and still in his late twenties himself, he was playing for thrill-seeking teenagers.

Sonically speaking, Goodman’s is a world away from punk from which, 40 years on in turn, The Damned’s ‘New Rose‘ still sounds both fresh and vital to me (a tribute to the production of Nick Lowe, which knocked the band out at the time). Rat Scabies, fag in mouth, clattering out that rhythm on his drumkit; Brian James’s buzzsaw guitar; the whole coming together with an explosive energy – still blows me away in a heartbeat of recognition. I’m perhaps not as well placed to others to judge the worth of ‘New Rose’ (among others) in a contemporary setting (age being somewhat against me) but, sonically, I can’t hear that same great leap forwards now as there was between Goodman and the Damned. And that’s because it clearly isn’t there.

The rupture that the arrival of rock’n’roll represented is key, of course (though – arguments aside as to the real originators of rock’n’roll – there was a stylistic link between the swing era and Bill Haley and the Comets, coming eighteen years after Goodman, and thus more or less the mid-point between swing and punk). Equally important is the electrification of the guitar and its amplification; but Gioia continually points to changes in popular taste and in changing economic circumstances defining what musicians do and that’s also true. Gioia is referring more to the shifts within various parts of the jazz scene – but it’s true today too in terms of fragmentation within modern popular music into genres (where once jazz gave birth to trad, swing, bop and modern; electronic dance music gave birth to drum and bass, jungle, dubstep and grime). Equally, the ending of prohibition gave rise to the energy and the opportunity for big bands like Goodman’s to function, however briefly; today, it’s reality TV and the ubiquity of Simon Cowell which gives rise to the narrowly stylised vocal warblings and pyrotechnics on which modern wannabes build their own stardoms.

Apart from the mistaken call on many bands of the punk era to reunite – on which issue John Lydon has (still) the most appropriate comment – the longevity of many music careers today would have surprised Goodman and the Sex Pistols alike (Goodman had one triumphant tour and a major concert at Carnegie Hall (while clearly continuing for a longer while albeit much less influentially); the Pistols had a number of gigs and one album). It surprises me, too – bands were never supposed to last more than a couple of years or albums, by which time we had all moved on to something new and they should have retired; and the notion of one man (Springsteen, to pick another from my to-read shelf) in his late 60s still appealing to many people in their 20s – take a look at attendance at his gigs, and I don’t just mean Glastonbury (or the 48 year-old Dave Grohl, to pick a more contemporary example) – would have shocked (and clearly disappointed) the 14 year-old me.

To return to Gioia’s assertion of music directions being the product of changes in circumstances and in taste, the substantial lack of a new sonic direction for music in first the twenty years, and then the forty years, after 1977 – while accepting that exponential leaps in music can’t continue to keep happening – seems to indicate that punk in its energies and music form was doing something right. Bands shouldn’t last for ever and there should be a deal of turnover, but a shared, collective vision on what popular music should be about, based on a DIY mentality and an energetic assertion of the emotional power of popular music, certainly ought.